End of an area for Tunisien : Douglas Arfort (avril 1970)



End of an era for Tunisia


By Douglas Ashford

President Habib Bourguiba startled many Tunisians when he stood before the newly elected third National Assembly last November and launched a public attack on Ahmed Ben Salah, for eight years the chief architect of Tunisian development, and generally regarded as Bourguiba’s heir-apparent. Since 1961 the President himself had heaped distinction and power on the brilliant, energetic Minister of Planning, Finance, Commerce, Industry, Agriculture and Education-titles which in themselves reflect the extent to which Ben Salah’s ambitions were supported by both the ruling Destourian Socialist Party and the state.
Ben Salah had never hidden his radical views, even though his outspoken attacks against vested interests had annoyed many party stalwarts in earlier years. His socialist convictions had provided the basis for the reorganization of the party prior to the 1964 Congress of Bizerte, where his strategy of development by state, private and cooperative means was enthusiastically endorsed. Ben Salah seemed the one man able to reconstruct Tunisia in face of the pressure from militantly socialist Algeria, the severe disaffection among the youth, and the economic stagnation. Even when he revealed plans, in January 1969, to place some 10 million acres of land in production cooperatives, thus effectively adding agriculture to the industrial and commercial sectors already under firm Government control, he continued to receive the full support of the President.
The President’s disavowal before the Assembly unleashed such a deluge of criticism that one wonders how party solidarity had been maintained as’ Ben Salah’s influence grew. The sudden reversal of a mutually acclaimed policy clearly embarrassed the regime. And although many party leaders were doubtless relieved to see such a powerful figure removed, these same men have defended the Destourian Government as being best suited to initiate and to implement change in the national interest. The abrupt rejection of a key man in such a structure reflects both the strengths and weaknesses of the one-party state, which must endeavor to maintain social harmony while advocating substantial social reorganization. Ben Salah’s fall indicates that to some extent the party’s judgment was wrong on both counts, and perhaps the greatest danger is that the leaders themselves will lose confidence at a critical juncture in Tunisia’s transformation (see « Tunisia Modernizes, » Africa Report, March 1968).
If a one-party regime is to retain power, it must accomplish three objectives. First, the party must maintain unanimity of leadership. This means not only that policies are carefully reviewed and coordinated by party and state machinery, but also that individual excess, age differences and social rivalries are mediated in the party system. Second, the regime must evolve means of adjusting to its own success. Changes must either be incorporated in new institutional forms or rejected, often at very tangible costs for development. Under Ben Salah’s prodding, Tunisia has changed substantially in a decade. The Destourian regime was prepared to expend resources to advance cooperatives, but it appears that only this year did it realize what the institutional implications might be. Third, the party can only retain its essential monopoly of mass support if deep-seated popular tensions are detected quickly. The party cannot avoid the fact that it pursued a very unpopular policy almost to the point of self-destruction, nor, of course, should the current wave of relief among Tunisians be ascribed solely to the abandonment of these plans. The demise of Ben Salah is a test of the system which has, to some measure, failed on all counts.
Many feel that President Bourguiba, perhaps in part because of illness, allowed himself to rely too heavily on Ben Salah. Bourguiba’s speech contained a certain note of indignation. He recalled Ben Salah’s « arrogance » in the 1955 party congress, where Ben Salah, with trade union support, fought for socialist reforms. There was a kind of double jeopardy in this, because Ben Salah subsequently did his penance in the shadow of the party and dutifully returned to become a highly successful Secretary of State for Health in 1957. The President felt that Ben Salah had betrayed his trust, but this does not take into consideration that in the closely knit circles of Tunis and in the party itself, such excesses are generally known long before a national crisis is threatened.
Bahi Ladgham became Prime Minister in the new Government, and the attack quickly became more intense and embittered. Ladgham charged Ben Salah with the pursuit of power under the disguise of socialism and with the use of « mystification » to subvert national interests. There is no doubt that Ben Salah was ambitious-most politicians are-but this hardly explains how the system permitted its policies to be so badly distorted by one man that political process itself broke down and Tunisia narrowly escaped massive uprisings. If the Destourian system is to survive, it must find better ways of handling policy formation, organization and popular support.
Since last September a number of crises have converged on the Tunisian state-perhaps more than any government so vigorously pursuing development, with all its ensuing dislocations, could handle. The October floods were a disaster, wiping out hundreds of thousands of homes and leaving over 400 dead. The Libyan coup (see « The Libyan Revolution Sorts Itself Out, » Africa Report, December 1969), left Tunisian nerves frayed when the new Government inclined toward eastern brands of Arab nationalism. The World Bank expressed some reservations about Tunisian financial policy and refused to increase the 1967 loan of $15 million for equipping cooperatives in the north. Perhaps solidarity had become so highly valued that it became ; a habit, for there were signs of discontent long before the fall.
For example, back in January 1968, Ahmed Mestiri, a respected and loyal nationalist, resigned from the cabinet. The party was upset, but so long as Mestiri maintained a respectful silence he was not punished. He did reveal to the foreign press that he felt too much important legislation was being rushed through, but was too cautious to suggest that Ben Salah, using his direct influence with the President, was remodeling Tunisian institutions faster than anyone could follow. Specifically, Mestiri objected to the new commercial code, issued by decree, that marked total supervision by the Government.
Less public was the submerged unrest of the students, a generational problem that has plagued the Destourian Government since independence. The shift to strong, central planning in 1961 had in part been an effort to placate militant students, and several of their leaders were brought into high office at that time. In the spring of 1967 and again in 1968, the party was under severe pressure to recognize Nasser’s cause and there were serious student demonstrations. The regime exposed its discomfort by overreacting, and student demonstrators were sentenced to as much as 20 years of hard labor.
The Government also, broke off relations with Syria when it appeared that Syrian Baathists were agitating among youth. In typically Destourian fashion, an effort was then made to placate the opposition. Ben Salah also made some rather crude attempts to silence critics at the University of Tunis. In March 1969, the Government held a « Palestine Week » and a Palestinian Arab delegation was officially recognized in Tunis. This revival of more doctrinaire nationalism reflected the strain felt in Government circles as Ben Salah intensified the pace of social change. The resurgence of interest in Islam and Arab nationalism, eventually acknowledged by the party and Government, were a departure from the pragmatic posture Bourguiba had preferred.
Tunisia has been distinguished among new nations for the honesty and industry of its officials. But the rapid expansion of government alone makes it more difficult to maintain standards. In late 1968, Tahar Belkhodja, the Director of Public Security and a member of a distinguished family, was removed from office for abusing his powers in a scandal that also led to the dismissal of the commander of the National Guard and a member of the party’s Central Committee. In the fall of 1969, it also appeared that one of Ben Salah’s most trusted friends, the Governor of Sousse, had manipulated official records and funds.
Like citizens of most developing countries, Tunisians accept the privileges of those in high office, but in a small country with intricate personal relations corruption seldom goes unnoticed. Ben Salah’s plans meant that many more positions had to be created quickly, and it now appears that few of the older party stalwarts foresaw how much influence this would give him or how much the risk of corruption would be increased.
The current Tunisian crisis is not just a difference among leaders, important as such rivalries may be as the drama is played out, but also a test of how a single-party regime can manage the strains and conflicts of rapid change. Earlier troubles did not involve the image of society itself. But Ben Salah’s vision of a reconstructed Tunisia, whatever his motives, was that of a radically changed society.
There are clearly two forces at work in Ben Salah’s downfall. One is his own fear that the President’s illness might mean that his own powers would shortly be curtailed and his vision never fulfilled. Thus, many of the steps he took since early 1969 were rushed. But it seems equally apparent that Ben Salah acquired his power because few, if any, others had his imagination and energy. It was only when he began to unfold his plans hastily that he became vulnerable, for he not only violated the basic rule of party unanimity before acting, but he also revealed the full dimensions of a social structure that was simply unacceptable to the elite. Not only was the system one that Ben Salah would obviously be in the best position to control, but there was also the possibility of a new structure beyond the influence of the party.
The Destourian system has now learned that development slogans are very different from revolutionary slogans. The Congress of Bizerte in 1964 had acclaimed Ben Salah’s plan for economic development based on the private, public and cooperative sectors. It was ideologically attractive and it seemed to skirt the tough questions of how the sectors would in fact be related. In the past, the party machinery had done a pretty good job of moderating such conflicts, but the proposal to launch thousands of cooperatives, it is now clear, might easily have surpassed the party’s capabilities.
For seven years the entire system gave approval and power to Ben Salah. With Tunisia’s severe economic disadvantages, the controls imposed on commerce and industry were acceptable. In agriculture, the earliest and most radical experiments were in the north, where the Government suddenly acquired large land holdings when French property was nationalized in 1964. The production cooperatives, concentrates in Beja and Kef provinces, were a new social form, and even in 1965 it was clear that they faced formidable obstacles. But this did not touch directly on old Destourian power centers, such as Sahel and Sousse.
In the central coastal plains a more subdued form of cooperative, for services and marketing, was instituted in an attempt to put citrus and olive lands under more efficient management. There were minor uprisings, notably at M’Saken, but the leadership remained solidly behind Ben Salah. In the south, more limited plans were launched for diversified production cooperatives around irrigated perimeters. The slogans of the Bizerte Congress were clearly becoming a reality, but popular resentment was also building up as the cooperative sector threatened to overtake both private and Governmental activity.
The vast network of cooperatives dependent on Ben Salah’s superministry was pushed to new heights in early 1969. Amid the usual fanfare, Bourguiba announced the formation of a National Union of Cooperation, a kind of organizational capstone to the cooperative structure. The President and Ben Salah spoke of a new agrarian reform law, comparable to the controversial commercial code of early 1958, which would achieve the « social `function » of land. The party congress scheduled for October (now postponed) was to be built around a major new departure designed by Ben Salah. Early in the year plans were announced to enlarge production cooperatives from 2.5 to 10 million acres by the end of the year, roughly half of the more productive land in Tunisia. Landowners and peasants in the party’s traditional power centers were told that by the end of the year their holdings would be converted into production cooperatives.
These proposals brought the discontent that had been building up both within and without the party to a head. The key structure in the conversion to a basically cooperatively organized society was the new National Union of Cooperation, through which Ben Salah would have achieved final control over the Ministry of the Interior, the sole organization that might exercise administrative influence comparable to his superministry. The National Union of Cooperation would reach to the grass roots of Tunisian society in a way that only the party has been permitted to do in the past. The enlarged cooperative sector would provide hundreds of new posts with good pay and special privileges- all under the control of Ben Salah. Indeed, it is the political implications of this innovation that lend credibility to the elite’s charges of Ben Salah’s political ambitions rather than the highly dramatized exposure of difficulties in the cooperative sector, which have been known for years.
The vigorous attempt to complete the cooperative sector in one year brought new popular resistance. There was an uprising at Ouardinine, which was severely suppressed, and more trouble at M’Saken. There were reports of intentional destruction of property in Sousse, where some farmers apparently preferred to destroy their holdings rather than see them absorbed in production cooperatives. But the President and his cabinet continued to tour the countryside defending Ben Salah.
Early in the year, the Government announced proudly that over 20 per cent of the active population were members of cooperatives. In July, a week of celebration was organized around the expansion of cooperatives, and over the summer the National School for Cooperation held courses in the field, reaching about 8,000 persons. Ben Salah seems to have been aware of the weaknesses of the rapid growth of the cooperative sector, but he was determined to push his plan through by fall.
The reversal of the policy came slowly as the President gradually became conscious of the full extent of resistance. When he visited his home in Monastir over the summer, old friends refused to visit him, and in the very heartland of the party crowds were thin. In the summer, the World Bank made its annual review of its activities in Tunisia and refused to increase its 1967 loan to support production cooperatives, but this decision must surely have been independent of growing alarm within the party. After spending most of August discussing ways of revising the cooperative policy, the party first opted for gradual exclusion of Ben Salah. On September 8, 1969, he was demoted to Minister of Education and the superministry was broken up. A new power center was created by making Bahi Ladgham Prime Minister, a post created several years ago when the Council of the Republic was formed to handle succession crises in the event of Bourguiba’s sudden death. Ladgham became responsible for the « general coordination of state business. »
Once Ben Salah’s power was broken, the entire edifice collapsed. Peasants in Sahel and Sousse reportedly chased hastily assembled cooperative officials off their land. Skeletal cooperatives were spontaneously dissolved and provincial officials simply gave way as landowners came to recover their holdings. Even the much more thoroughly established urban cooperatives for service and consumption began to erode once the Government voiced its doubts. By the end of the month, Ladgham was making outspoken attacks on Ben Salah, accusing him of bringing the nation « to the brink of catastrophe, » the law on agrarian reform had quickly been rewritten and toned down, and the entire cooperative structure had been put under attack.
The timing was unfortunate. The party was about to begin its national election campaign and the farms were disrupted in the middle of the planting season. Ben Salah was permitted to run for office in the Assembly at Monastir, a sign of possible recovery in the eyes of the party. He received only 8,660 of over 52,000 votes cast, a ridiculous showing in a country where party candidates normally receive nearly unanimous support. What is surprising is that even with the party machinery obviously turned against him, Ben Salah could still get almost 20 per cent of the votes.
In the wake of his disgrace, party leaders joined in denouncing him: Ahmed Mestiri spoke from retirement; the director of the Central Bank condemned reckless economic policies; and trade union leader Ben Achour, who had been removed by Ben Salah, rejoined the party ranks. By midNovember Ben Salah had lost all his positions in the party and Government, and the cabinet was again reshuffled to exclude all but one of Ben Salah’s colleagues, a token gesture, and Mahmoud Messadi, the Minister of Education who had been pushed aside by Ben Salah, returned as Minister of State. Thus, in one frantic month, the abused, the skeptical and the conservative joined hands to dismantle Ben Salah’s empire.
The uniformity of expression required at high levels of government to make the one-party system operate has an inherent conservative bias, even in states which are more radical than Tunisia. Though Tunisian leaders have generally done well in reconciling their differences behind closed doors, the differences that now present themselves are less and less the exclusive concern of the elite. The party apparatus has been able to adjust itself to many of the needs of development, but it is questionable if it can ever absorb the impact of a society as fully mobilized as Ben Salah envisaged. That the Destour viewed an organizational threat from the National Union of Cooperatives as … for … drastic action is a perfection on how power is used in the … just as much as on how Ben Salah was motivated or what the final implications of his scheme might have been. Tunisia is not alone among developing nations, or even among free nations, in finding large-scale institutional change difficult, but such change is part of the modernization process and must eventually be accommodated within the party’s limitations.
The most interesting problem, however, exists at the level of social change and popular support. Ben Salah is now made to appear arrogant and irresponsible, and he may well have been. But his public position was supported by the very men who now condemn him, and his plans for cooperatives were obviously unpopular at the grass-roots level long before last year.
The one-party system’s problem is not so much that political change is often abrupt, but that it so often tends to be total. The more deeply involved the society becomes in socio-economic change, the less appropriate this manner of adjustment becomes. Certainly the peasants were happy to recover their land, and restoring the land might be called popular government, but doesn’t this reinforce values and institutions that have resisted Tunisian development in the past? The leaders say that they are only restoring the division of interests envisaged in the Bizerte Congress in 1964, but should Tunisia in 1970 be groping for a formula devised in 1964?
One of the most fascinating themes in the restoration of the Bizerte formula, often cited in Ladgham’s speeches, is that the cabinet was given « falsified » statistics and information. Ben Salah is surely too intelligent to lie deliberately to his colleagues. The cooperatives were some $25 million in debt, but this could hardly have been a secret in Tunisia. Nor does this seem like an inordinate amount for trying to convert an entire agricultural process. While attacking Ben Salah for wasting funds, the leaders do not explain how they arrived at their figures. The problem is surely one of interpretation, and Ben Salah obviously was not in a mood to encourage resistance over the past year. Indicative of the Government’s view on how to use information, steps have been taken to centralize statistical and research activities at an even higher level of authority, the Prime Ministry. The emphasis seems not to be on finding ways of checking and comparing change in the society, but on making the final results even more authoritative and, in many ways, more inaccessible..
With the many uncertainties confronting Tunisia, including the President’s ill health and the aftermath of the tragic floods, there may be good reasons for trying to consolidate the gains of the past decade. But much of the change in the past months has involved dismantling cooperatives with very little thought of how to continue their activities in a form that would be harmonious with future growth. Perhaps the most significant indication of the Destour’s intentions will be the extent to which social change is curtailed in order to restore the party image. It is no defense of Ben Salah to suggest that a more highly mobilized Tunisia might easily not be to the taste of many Tunisians schooled in the Destourian system. One way to reduce this challenge would be to reduce change itself, but it is hard to imagine a people with the vitality and determination of the Tunisians taking this option. In the past, the Tunisian leaders have been ingenious in finding ways for the exercise of power to advance national interests. One hopes that the country will emerge from this crisis with a new and workable formula.

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